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St. Pat’s Parade gives back to local charities

For 23 years, the Madison St. Patrick’s Day Parade has supported local nonprofits while celebrating Irish heritage.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 12, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee issued the following statement:

“The 23rd annual Madison St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been canceled due to concerns raised about the health and safety of our community. Health officials haven’t officially told us to cancel, but out of respect for the people of greater Madison, we won’t be hosting the annual celebration. We also will cancel the post parade party at LJ’s. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and look forward to celebrating again next March.

“We want to thank everyone who has pledged donations to the UW Carbone Cancer Center, Gigi’s Playhouse or Logan’s Heart & Smiles. Your donation will still go to the organizations.”


Wisconsin may be well known for its Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, but the state has a strong history of Irish settlers, as well.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, most Irish settlers came to Wisconsin between 1840 and 1860, representing the largest English-speaking group to settle in the state. While many Irish settlers began to leave Wisconsin in 1860 as German immigrants poured into the state, Irish roots are still strong locally.

Nearly 14 percent of Madison residents have Irish ancestry, second highest among reported European ancestries, according to, and those roots have resulted in significant displays of Irish pride over the years, most notably with the Madison St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which has undergone a few iterations since its earliest days.

This year’s parade will kick off at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 15 from the intersection of N. Pinckney and E. Mifflin streets before moving counter-clockwise around the Capitol Square and exiting at East Washington Avenue.

According to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade website, a survey of Madison newspapers between 1890 and 1980 indicates Madison has likely had three waves of St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Students in the UW Engineering School sponsored the first wave of parades. These appear to have run off and on from 1912 to 1937, occurring the week after St. Patrick’s Day, possibly due to winter break. The engineering students’ enthusiasm sparked a fierce rivalry between the engineers and the Law School students, resulting in a ban on the parades by the university in 1940, although the rivalry continued.

The Dane County Shamrock Club began the second wave of parades when the organization was formed in 1974, which lasted until roughly the end of the decade.

The most recent parade started 23 years ago, says Joe Herr, event spokesperson, when Katie O’Phalen, a University of Wisconsin student, decided that Madison needed a St. Patrick’s Day Parade of its own. She wanted to continue to legacy her father started when he created a similar parade in Minneapolis, and the free parade has since grown from a few hundred spectators to thousands.

Herr would certainly know. He has portrayed the leprechaun in the parade for a number of years and is also the founder of one of the three local charities that will benefit from this year’s parade, Logan’s Heart and Smiles. The other two beneficiaries this year are the UW Carbone Cancer Center and GiGi’s Playhouse-Madison.

“One of the hidden gems about the parade is that it continues to give back to our community,” notes Herr. “Each year, we hope to give $1,000 each to the local charities, pending the proceeds raised. Since its inception, the parade has donated more than $50,000 to local organizations, and 100 percent of all the proceeds after costs are donated to the charities each year.”

This year will be the first that all three beneficiaries are marching in the parade. In addition to giving the beneficiaries a chance to showcase what they do and how the parade helps each one with their mission, some returning favorite attractions include Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin band, The Kissers, and many other local organizations, says Herr.

The only act that paradegoers won’t see are horses because parade insurance just won’t allow it, notes Herr.

“We love seeing new faces get involved in the parade,” adds Herr. “Businesses can receive exposure to thousands of people pre-parade and during the parade itself. It’s great to see how the parade puts joy and smiles on everyone’s faces.” Businesses looking to still participate in or volunteer with the parade can learn more at

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